P.2 ~ Continued - Offshore at 60: Remembering the Creole field

On March 18, 1938, production of oil from a well drilled by Pure Oil and Superior Oil in the Gulf of Mexico marked the birth of the offshore industry. A look back at both the Creole platform and others that followed after World War II provides a glimpse of history in the making.

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Foggy weather forced even slower rides out; at times, the captain had to cut the engine to allow all onboard to listen for sounds coming from the platform. Without radios and telephones for communications between the shore and the platform, such sounds gave them at least a chance to find the platform in dense fog. On a clear day without fog, the platform might have been visible from the deserted patch of shoreline that marked the closest point to it from the beach, but it always was out of sight of land from its primary supply point, Cameron. Indeed, theOffshore article reckoned that workers faced a winding boat ride of 12 or 13 mi (19 or 21 km) to reach the platform. In short, whether an observer could see the structure from some point on the shore had little relevance to the extreme difficulties involved in finding and producing oil from the original Creole platform.

Despite these and other obstacles, the Creole drilling platform found oil and developed a field that produced an estimated 4 MMbbl of oil in its first 25 years. Although hardly large production, compared to offshore fields discovered in subsequent years, this was enough to keep the Creole field producing profitably for decades. During these years, however, it faded into the ranks of a growing number of shallow-water fields along the Texas/Louisiana coast. As the oil and gas industry moved farther offshore, the historical importance of the original Creole platform was forgotten.

World War II played a part in this process. The activity of German submarines in the Gulf and the societal imperative to win the war on two fronts moved attention away from the offshore industry. The war's end brought a rush offshore, and a wave of innovation in exploration created a revolution in offshore drilling that transformed this sector of the industry from 1946 through the early 1960s. The heart of this revolution was the search for economically viable approaches to mobile offshore drilling.

Before the war, the Creole platform had finessed the issue of mobility in the only way it could, by holding the costs of exploratory drilling down with wooden construction and reducing risks by drilling a site with a high probability of success. Had oil not been found, the companies involved probably would have written off the project, salvaged whatever wood they could from the platform, and returned to shore to lick their wounds and contemplate whether or not to go offshore again in the future. Their success in finding oil in commercial quantities posed a different choice: Would they expand the production from the field by drilling more wells from the original platform, or would they build similar structures at different locations over the field? They chose a combination of the two by initially expanding operations on the "exploration" platform and then later adding additional production platforms.

During an extraordinary burst of innovation and entrepreneurship after World War II, other companies found the resources to try different approaches. With better tools at their disposal, they took a variety of paths in their quest for greater mobility and lower costs in exploratory drilling. The fact that Kermac 16 was "out of sight of land" was much less historically significant than its contribution to the evolution of mobile drilling. Its essential contribution was the development of what became known as the "small platform with tender." This approach allowed a company to search for oil from a relatively inexpensive small platform with most supporting equipment and quarters for workers on large war surplus vessels tethered nearby with chains. These vessels could be purchased relatively cheaply then converted for use offshore. If drilling produced a dry hole, the platform could be scrapped while the tenders could be towed to another drilling site, saving substantial time and money. This innovation provided a much needed bridge between the stickbuilding of pre-war platforms and the "Gulf of Mexico" approach to the design of both mobile drilling rigs and metal jacket production platforms that had emerged by the late 1950s.

As Kerr-McGee and others developed small platforms with tenders, other companies experimented with the use of large, permanent drilling platforms resembling the permanent production platforms that came later. Though expensive, these platforms were large and sturdy; they could handle rough seas and had a long life expectancy as production platforms once they had found large reserves of oil. But if they did not find oil they could not be moved. In short, their "mobility" lasted from their journey out to the drilling location at sea until they were attached to the ocean floor with piles. The lack of success in finding oil at their original location meant a substantial loss for their owners, with no chance of recouping the loss at another site.

In 1946, Magnolia built the first of these large and expensive drilling platforms in the Gulf. Designers remembered it as one of the first offshore structures to use a metal frame to reinforce the timber piles used to support the platform. Investors and companies looking to move offshore remembered it for a different reason: its first drilling site was its last. It had to be abandoned after drilling an expensive dry hole. This led to the expansion in the use of small platforms with tenders while also intensifying the quest for truly mobile drilling rigs.

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